Found in South Dakota, the Badlands' landscape boasts a maze of buttes, canyons, pinnacles, and spires. The park encompasses an astonishing 244,000 acres where fossilized skeletons of three-toed horses and saber-toothed cats can be found. The Badlands are a sight to be seen and more so, experienced.
The Badlands became the first national park where it seemed filling your time with accomplishments wasn't the point, but rather, the point was to just be.
Imagine for a moment watching a giant bison roam through a lush forest, eating the plentiful vegetation as he makes his way into wide open prairies. He is joined by ancient rhinos and other animals as they graze freely, aware of predators, a group which humans were not a part of. Now imagine it laying down, weary from a long life and slipping away peacefully. Around him, the forest dies out, the prairie dries up and time moves on.
Millions of years later, I find myself kicking a rock off the edge of a tall, natural formation and it travels a hundred feet down, passing where that bison died centuries before any man stepped foot. I am standing in the middle of a unique topography characterized by sharply eroded buttes, gullies, and ridges that have come to be known as The Badlands. Volcanic activity, infrequent but torrential downpours, and sandblasting erosion helped to create one of the most majestic sights that the United States has to offer in South Dakota.
When I was driving across the country for new beginnings, I did what any red-blooded American would do and I created a road trip itinerary for stops along the way. State Parks, attractions - touristy stuff that you wouldn't do on any other day. The Badlands didn't make the cut, I hadn't even considered stopping to see it. I was too distracted by the possibility of seeing Mount Rushmore for the first time. However on my drive through I was drawn to the signs. I mean, how bad could a place called The Badlands really be?
What I initially thought was bad marketing (there couldn't be that many people that pull off the highway to find out why something is called bad) turned out to be an actual landscape description. Badlands are generally dry, crumbly terrain where softer sedimentary rocks and soils have been heavily eroded by wind and water, often causing interesting rock formations and patterns. You can find badlands in a lot of places (and even in a lot of other places in the US), but Badlands National Park protects a particularly large swath of this unique landscape. When I pulled off to take the scenic route to check it out, I didn't know what to expect.
What I got was something otherworldly. The Badlands offered something truly unique from other State Parks. While the majority that I have visited in the past were geared towards fishing, hiking, and other outdoorsman sporting, The Badlands offered something else entirely. I discovered that there wasn't much to DO while there. When you arrive, there are only a few options for your visit.
You can take the scenic drive. The main road through the park is known as the Badlands Loop Road, and on some maps you’ll see it labeled as Highway 240. It runs roughly 27 miles, from the Pinnacles entrance of the park to the northeast entrance, somewhat paralleling interstate 90 from Wall to Interior, South Dakota.
You can do some short hiking. While the hiking enthusiast could easily find places to disappear for days on end, there is hiking meant for everyone. Short trails that take you just around a few bends to get a better look at formations, or even places to let kids roam and climb all over the formations free from the constraints of trails.
Or you can stretch your photographer's eye. From the unique topography to the wildlife, there is no shortage of interesting sights to point and shoot. If you have the time, being able to see The Badlands for a sunset or a sunrise (both if you decide on an overnight) will give you countless opportunities for wall-worthy photography.
As I began the drive on The Loop, I realized that the winding road, set up as a small, two lane road wasn't going to get me anywhere fast. It was designed from the beginning to slow me down and coerce me into taking in the moment. People stopped for photos, actually stopping traffic to get out of their car and snap shots of the buttes, pinnacles, spires, and prairies. They stopped for big horned rams that never feared crossing the road, because people don't drive fast there. This was a place to slow down.
I pulled into one of the scenic overlooks and peered out at the rock formations that have continued to change for millennia, and took a short walk along the areas that were easily accessible to me. There were wooden pathways for the less enthusiastic hikers, but I left the path to find my way out above a valley to get a better view.
Once I was out on the edge of a butte (and out of striking distance of anything venomous), the world disappeared. The stress faded away as everyday life became background noise. The mundane Monday through Friday was a distant memory and far away future that no longer weighed on my mind as I basked in the sunlight among millions of years of history.
The Badlands became the first national park where I felt that finding activities and filling your time with accomplishments wasn't the point. But rather, the point was to just be. It was a time to stand in awe of what the Earth did before me, what she will do after me, and just how special it was that I was chosen to witness it.